“Dear White People”

Our series of films focusing on racism concludes with “Dear White People,” released in 2014. Evan and I liked a number of things about it. First, in the tradition of Spike Lee, director Justin Simien managed to craft a story that does not rely on any “voice of wisdom” to guide the main characters. Everyone is flawed or blind in some big or small way. Evan also enjoyed main character Sam’s “Rebirth of a Nation” student film project. Our discussion of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 “classic” was not time wasted.

My main difficulty in allowing “Dear White People” to draw me into its tangled web of racially tinged drama was its reliance on dialogue for character development. The characters are defined much more by what they say to each other than by anything they actually do. With long scenes and few set changes, it might even have made a better stage play.

There is a flip side to this: “Dear White People,” moreso even than “Crash,” is a movie of the 21st century, shining the spotlight on a form of racism more pertinent to the day-to-day lives of its modern audience than riots, murders, or Jim Crow laws. The racism most carefully under examination today has less to do with these, and more to do with the remarks, sometimes well-meaning but thoughtless, sometimes mean-spirited but revealing, that people of different races direct towards one another in misguided efforts to communicate and understand. “Dear White People” is about a racist power dynamic, but one that manifests in language rather than through actions, making it slippery and harder to study. It’s no surprise, then, that this movie is more about how our words, not just our deeds, illuminate who we are.

“Dear White People,” along with “School Daze” and “Higher Learning,” was our third campus film. The emphasis on snappy dialogue gave this movie a tone that more closer resembles “School Daze,” but each of the three movies ends with an explosive event of some kind- a rape, a killing, and an all-out brawl. These events close the narrative, and the denouement that follows each ultimately defines the tone of the respective movie. “School Daze” ends with some sense of hope, as Laurence Fishburne looks into the camera, begging the viewer to “wake up!”. “Higher Learning” ends on a decidedly more sour and pessimistic note: the racism-fueled murder seems likelier to create rifts than bonds. “Dear White People” ends with a scene that can only be described as comically cynical. The clash that ended a “Release Your Inner Negro” themed party the night before has finally attracted the attention of a network television producer. The black dean of students is mid-sentence rejecting the producer’s offer to shoot a reality-TV series on their campus, when the white university president interrupts him to ask the producer “How much money are we talking about?”. It seems no matter what efforts the students might make to change their world, this is the status quo with which such efforts meet their inevitable conclusion. Conflict sells, and the house always wins.

Next: “Winter’s Bone” (2010) Dir. Debra Granik

 

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“Crash”

2004’s “Crash,” written and directed by Paul Haggis, shares in common with “Do the Right Thing” that racism is presented as complex web of deep-rooted biases, rather than as a binary, black and white (literally) conflict. Beyond this, similarities are few.

Along with “American History X,” which had more to do with racists than with racism, “Crash” was our first film by a white director in quite some time. The biases poked through in interesting and revealing ways. As is all to often the case in movies in general, the women spend far too much time loudly and abusively losing their temper at their husbands, who naturally do their best to remain calm, and maintain audience sympathy. After all, their hands always seem to be tied by forces greater than themselves. One also notices that the white characters, played most prominently by Sandra Bullock and Matt Dillon, get off the hook too easily. They are introduced to the audience while engaging in actions and behaviors that betray inexcusably racist attitudes, allowing the (mostly) white liberal viewers to congratulate themselves for not being as horrible as the characters depicted in this film.

Nevertheless, by biggest problem with “Crash” remains Haggis’ greatest strength as a filmmaker- his penchant for dramatic storytelling. When a cop is saving a woman from an overturned SUV before it explodes in exuberant slow motion, (after abusing his authority during a random stop-and-frisk the previous evening) it feels like what should be the turning point into the second act of a completely different movie. When a Latino locksmith is about to take a bullet from the Persian shopkeeper who blames him for a burglary in his store, the locksmith’s young daughter intervenes to save him. In much the same way, the shopkeeper is also saved by his daughter, who loaded her father’s gun with blank cartridges the night before. This feels like it could have been a rare and beautiful meditation on the bond between fathers and daughters. Unfortunately, “Crash” was supposed to be a movie that wove a dramatic yarn while raising complex and uncomfortable questions about urban racism in the 21st century, not the other way around. Such questions around racism are raised, and then resolved through Hollywood drama.

While Evan mostly enjoyed the movie, he felt the aforementioned twist involving the shopkeeper’s daughter came too close to Deus Ex Machina. This was followed by a discussion and clarification of this infamous storytelling device. A closer example of Deus Ex Machina, I proposed, would be the highway crash that precipitates the coincidental reunion between the cop and the woman he groped the night before, thus “resolving” their storyline. The shopkeeper’s daughter switching out the bullets doesn’t really qualify, since a) she is a human character, not a force of nature, and b) the twist was planted in full view of the audience when the pair purchased the bullets two days before. I do appreciate Evan’s vigilance against what has become a too cheaply used and abused plot mechanism.

What Evan did appreciate was how the only characters who might have qualified as the “voices of wisdom” that have received so much scrutiny in our other conversations were relegated to fairly minor roles. The shopkeeper’s daughter and the locksmith really only emit wisdom in the sense that they never do anything terribly objectionable. Laurence Fishburne’s Professer Phipps (“Higher Learning”) and Avery Brooks’ english teacher from “American History X” exist to mentor and advise the main character. Since “Crash” relies on hypertext-style story construction, there exists no main character for such a figure to guide towards redemption. This is not so much a mark of sophistication, as it is with Spike Lee’s characters, as it is an aspect of the story. Instead, the film’s main strength comes from its depiction of racism as more subtle than we’ve seen in our other films- a sign of changing times.

Next: “Dear White People” (2014) Dir. Justin Simien

 

“American History X”

“American History X” has an interesting history of its own. Displeased with a final edit completed without his participation, writer-director Tony Kaye attempted to have his name removed from this, his first feature film. One can only guess what Kaye’s grievances were, but for our part, Evan and I both found this film to be, in short, superbly well acted, fairly well scripted, and not very well shot, directed or edited. Kaye’s overuse of close-up shots grated on Evan’s nerves horribly, as did his overuse of slow-motion. Perhaps this was something Kaye might have corrected? Probably not.

These problems made it difficult for us to agree on the ironic or unironic use of such a soaring, victorious musical score played over the skinheads’ triumph on the basketball court against their black neighbors for future control of the courts. It sounded as though the downtrodden underdog had just beaten the odds at the finale of yet another classic but formulaic sports flick. My initial thought was that this had to be some kind of joke. Evan had the same response. No film composer could expect us to share in the neo-nazis moment, no matter how loudly the string section tugged at our hearts. And yet, precisely this approach continued throughout the movie, leading me to suspect that the composer knew they had a tough assignment in front of them (asking the audience to sympathize with a racist protagonist and his buddies) and went about achieving this from a slightly inept angle. Evan saw my point and agreed.

While there seemed to be some confusion regarding both where to focus the camera, as well as at what speed to run it at all times, we did both appreciate the transition between present and past through color and black-and-white cinematography. It took a couple guesses, but Evan pieced together that the point was to illustrate how Derek’s worldview had transitioned from simple (black-and-white) to complex (color) while in prison.

Edward Norton’s outstanding performance helped smooth what would be a difficult transition for any character to pull off convincingly. Evan found Derek’s rhetoric disturbingly convincing, as I remember upon first viewing 17 years ago myself. Mostly, I’ve never been so glad to not be sitting across the dinner table from any movie character armed with nothing but language.

At the same time, younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong), as much as he loves and listens to his older brother Derek, went from eagerly attending a skinhead metal show to ripping white supremacy posters off his wall fairly lickety-split in matter of several hours in story time. To be fair, Derek’s description of his experiences in prison were certainly graphic enough, but Evan (along with many well-known film critics) had a hard time buying this complete overhaul of Danny’s value system.

Back to John Singleton’s “Higher Learning,” we see here a major contrast in how a universally disliked group of individuals (neo-nazi skinheads) can be characterized on film. Singleton, with the exception of the lost and confused Remy, created skinheads that felt like paper cut outs of Tony Kaye’s creations. One can hardly blame Singleton- how much depth should an African American director really be expected to invest in bringing such monstrosities to life onscreen? Furthermore, Kaye’s skinheads were the focus of his film, not a multi-racial, multi-gendered, multi-linguistic spectrum of college students. In this sense, Kaye’s movie is not really a movie about racism, but about racists. He raises questions that have more to do with the darkest, ugliest side of white rage, and less to do with the questions asked every day by the average film-going, do-gooder (usually) white liberal. We’ll get to that next week.

Next: “Crash”(2004) Dir. Paul Haggis

 

 

“Shaft” (2000)

John Singleton’s 2000 remake/sequel of “Shaft” marks our third and final of Singleton’s films. Evan noted immediately that each of these films ended with an unexpected gun homicide. Singleton might have a hard time knowing how else to end his movies, but at least he does it well, was Evan’s response. All in all, he decided, it’s great for what it is. Evan quite enjoyed it.

Other than that, we found that it was hard to draw any meaningful connections between Singleton’s earlier two movies that we watched, “Boyz n the Hood” and “Higher Learning,” and this movie. He worked with Busta Rhymes in a supporting role once again, and he treated the genre with all the respect it deserves. Clearly, the project was meaningful to him. Probably the element of this film most worth noting is that it does, in its own way, continue Singleton’s  exploration of racial inequality, which first began in socio-economics (“Boyz n the Hood”), then in our academic culture (“Higher Learning”) and now finally within our so-called justice system. The story, after all, begins with a racially motivated murder. From there on out, “Shaft” features rich white kids getting bailed out on murder charges, a justice administrator unafraid to tell Shaft that he likes his new neighborhood because it’s “restricted,” and, along the way, characters who seem used to receiving this sort of treatment. Like his uncle before him, this Shaft, “too black for the uniform, too blue for the brothers,” seems to have one foot in each world.

Samuel Jackson’s Shaft, nephew of Richard Roundtree’s Shaft, is a cop rather than a private detective. I asked Evan what he thought of this difference. Evan found it ironic, since Samuel Jackson was much more temperamental and violent than his uncle- so much for professional courtesy. But then, movies have changed in 30 years. We shouldn’t expect the level of action that excited audiences in 1971 to pass today. Things change. Or don’t. Once again, it’s unfortunate that Shaft’s nephew is faced with the very same social injustices as his uncle was. An update of a movie like “Shaft” illustrates this problem well.

Next: American History X (1998) Dir: Tony Kaye

“Higher Learning”

Our second John Singleton movie, “Higher Learning,” provided Singleton’s entry into the “campus” subgenre of racial dramas. Set on a fictional college campus in southern California, “Higher Learning” provided a good opportunity for us to compare Singleton and Spike Lee’s directing styles, both two of the earliest African American film directors to achieve mainstream success, but with little else in common beyond that. Both are unafraid to tackle issues surrounding racism head-on, and both present racism as a complex and multi-faceted challenge, not to be overcome or resolved in the space of two hours. Evan pointed out that Singleton’s camera style calls far less attention to itself. There is relatively little camera movement, in contrast to Lee’s sometimes breathtaking dolly shots. Singleton uses high and low-angle shots very sparingly, and to memorable effect (as seen above).

In short, Singleton’s movies have a much more conventional “look” to them than Spike Lee’s films, but what about Lee and Singleton’s respective worldviews? What can we tell from the movies we’ve seen? Evan’s assessment is that Lee seems less optimistic about the future than Singleton does. Whereas “School Daze” ends with what feels like a call for both the characters and the audience to “wake up,” “Higher Learning” ends on a much more somber note that seems to ask, in the wake of tragedy “Can we ever learn?”.

As with “Boyz in the Hood,” Singleton again relies on characters (specifically on Laurence Fishburne’s characters) whose apparent purpose is to deliver wisdom to the younger protagonists. When I initially asked Evan about “voice of wisdom” characters, he responded that no, Singleton did a fine job of making sure all of his characters had a flawed perspective of some kind. Indeed, the cast of characters includes angry white kids, angry black kids, angry women, selfish men, and some degree of cluelessness embedded in each of them. So, perhaps it is easy for the viewer to get distracted. Sometimes, these characters get let off the hook in a way that robs them of some dimension. A young man is “good” because he chooses to wear a condom… when asked. A young woman is “good” because she takes her education as seriously as she takes her athletic endeavors- tropes to which Lee would never be in danger of falling victim.

Do Singleton’s personal biases show through? Not too clearly, at least. Evan found a bit implausible the degree to which the police coddled and sweet talked the rifle-toting white assailant, after having just administered a serious beating on the student he was caught fighting with- who happened to be black. Certainly not impossible, Evan agreed. These things absolutely do happen. (Evan knows how to read the news.) But was it appropriate to base the film’s climax around such a double standard? Many white people would not think so. This writer-director obviously would. It’s plausible enough to make a point.

Singleton’s depiction of the skinheads borders on the cartoonish. With the exception of Remy (Michael Rappaport), he clearly intends to give these characters all the complexity and conviction of Skeletor and Beast-Man. While he is under no obligation to give such characters any real human development, their thinness does come in stark contrast to the the supporting characters in “American History X,” which we’ll discuss in a few weeks.

Finally, the film’s climax led to some questions about school shootings. Evan pointed out that this movie was released four years before the Columbine massacre. He wanted to know if “Higher Learning,” in some creepy way, foretold what lay ahead in the way of school shootings. I explained that Remy’s actions were more likely inspired by the Charles Whitman shootings in 1966 (also on a college campus). Evan’s question did, however, force me to reflect upon how much less thinkable a high school killing of this sort would have been in 1995, racially motivated or otherwise. “Higher Learning’s” observations regarding racism might arguably reflect progress when viewed twenty years onward. Its observations regarding campus violence, sadly, do not.

Next: “Shaft” (2000) Dir. John Singleton

 

“Boyz n the Hood”

Evan and I begin a series of three John Singleton films with Singleton’s debut, “Boyz n the Hood,” from 1991. This movie earned the 24 year old first-timer the distinction of not only being the first black director nominated for an Oscar, but also the youngest director ever to receive that nomination. It is comforting to see that honor go to a film by a director who has much to say, and who says it differently. “Boyz n the Hood,”rather than deal with drug dealers, pimps, gangsters or private investigators, tells its story from the viewpoint of young boys turning into teenagers, just trying to survive long enough to grow up. This was probably the first movie to tell a such a story set within the urban black community. It brings to mind Gordon Parks’ “The Learning Tree,” from 1970, except taken out of Depression-Era Kansas and moved to present-day (1991)  Compton.

One aspect of “Boyz n the Hood” that interested Evan was the pair of police officers whom  Tre encounters twice- once with his father at age ten, and again with his friend Ricky seven years later. It is the black police officer, not the white officer, who disrespects Tre’s father, and threatens Tre with his gun. Asked what this abuse at the hands of authority represents, Evan’s first guess was that the officer is contemptuous of people in poor neighborhoods. Being a police officer must somehow place him above the people he is supposed to protect, and entitle him to treat them accordingly. That’s possible, but I think it’s more accurate to suggest that the black police officer is himself a victim. He feels pressure to go the extra distance in front of his white partner, and the mostly white LA County police team, just to prove that he’s not one of “them,” that he’s not giving anyone preferential treatment because they have the same skin color. We instead see the office giving Tre and his father an altogether different kind of special treatment. These scenes are perhaps their own commentary on the lack of unity and support within the black community in the face of omnipresent white authority.

I asked Evan if he found “Boyz n the Hood” to be sexist in any way. His response was that yes, there was sexism in the film. This provided a good opportunity to explain the difference between a sexist film, and a film that depicts sexism. It is true that Doughboy and his friends make deeply offensive remarks and use offensive terms referring to and addressing the few female characters in the film. The mere presence of such language in the film does not signify the writer-director’s approval of this attitude, and in fact a closer examination of the characters’ overall lifestyle might suggest a condemnation of the destructive power such attitudes contain. However, it is also worth noting that the film fails the Bechdel test, and that the few female characters we meet seem included either to support the male characters, or to berate them.

I was reminded of an essay written about Hollywood cinema in 1991. Two movies selected for comparison were “Boyz n the Hood” and “Terminator 2”. While “Terminator 2” included a strong, central female action hero, it relied on the trope of the self-sacrificing expendable black man in order to climax the film. While “Boyz n the Hood” finally showed America what daily life consists of for many young black men, young black women are not particularly well represented at all. It seems we can’t take a step forward without taking  a step backward. Nevertheless, Evan liked the film a great deal. He was particularly struck by Doughboy’s closing scene, where Doughboy contrasts the news coverage given to conflicts around the world to the lack of attention being paid to the struggles faced here in our own country. “It’s like America doesn’t know, or doesn’t care.” A brief epitaph for the character is all that follows. Twenty five years later, we’re still trying to figure out the answer.

Next: “Higher Learning” (1995) Dir. John Singleton

 

“Malcom X”

1992’s “Malcom X” concludes our overview of Spike Lee. The movie’s production is a long and interesting story, beginning shortly after Malcom was assassinated in 1965. A script was written over the next few years by formerly blacklisted screenwriter Arnold Perl, who died in 1971. Many years later, the picture was finally given the green light, with Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night) slated to direct. Controversy ensues. After all these years, a film is finally set to be made of Malcom X’s life, and Warner Bros. first choice, even if it is Norman Jewison, is a white director. Jewison eventually bowed out, but only after casting Denzel Washington. Spike Lee stepped in to helm his dream project.

Even apart from his undying sympathy for blacklisted screenwriters, Evan loved this movie, which doubled as a history lesson. Very little is taught about Malcom X in our schools, even today, especially if your school happens to be in a white neighborhood. I was reminded of hearing nothing about this film upon its release, when I was in middle school, other than that it was “controversial”. Today, the controversy I wanted to focus on more was how Lee depicts Malcom X, and whether or not Lee offers any overt sentiment regarding the Nation of Islam. Evan responded pretty quickly that Lee seems to admire Malcom. This is probably true. Does Lee admire everything about him? An equally quick “no.” Also, probably correct.

So, next question- what was Lee trying to accomplish with this movie? Praise? Scorn? Some of each? Evan answered that Lee wanted, above all else, to show Malcom honestly and truthfully. Yes, the Nation of Islam is depicted as being extraordinarily sexist, even for the early 1960s. Lee does not shy away from this. Furthermore, Malcom is undoubtedly pro-segregation, at a time when most progressives were working hard to fight segregation. Most famously, he did not condemn violence as a means for doing what he saw as necessary. Even this, Lee was able to represent without taking a strong stance in either direction. All of these must be weighed alongside Malcom’s accomplishments and impact, if the real story is to be told. Evan admired Lee’s ability to put events into their context, and show the historical personality in all his complexity.

This led to a discussion about what makes a good biopic. As per our conversation, Evan’s first answer was that the filmmakers’s duty is to depict the subject truthfully. Why then, I asked, not simply make a documentary? This is a format where the capacity to entertain is secondary to relying on factual information. What makes a biopic different? Factual information is important, but it is impossible to present a narrative drama onscreen, and get every last detail perfectly accurate. This is the nature of a medium that relies on actors and re-enacted sets, rather than archival footage, to tell its story. Perfect objective truth is non-existent. For example, it is unlikely that a woman stopped Malcom on the sidewalk on his way to his final speech, to tell him that Jesus was protecting him. Malcom was shown walking to the Audubon theater unaccompanied, and if this exchange had actually happened, Malcom would probably not have felt it worth recounting to anyone during his final hour on earth. The audience accepts that dramatic license is inevitable in this medium, and does not begrudge the filmmaker for such imagined moments as this.

Striking the balance between truth and drama appears to be the real trick. It is somehow comforting to read after watching a biopic that all or most of what you have just seen actually did occur. It is also the filmmaker’s duty to make it all interesting, to concoct engaging characters and a strong narrative, and ultimately to justify the time and budget that far exceed that of any documentary. It is interesting that Lee never precisely revisited the biopic genre, as it is also interesting to wonder what direction Malcom X’s ideology and activism would have taken, had he lived even a few more years.

Next: “Boyz n the Hood” (1991) Dir. John Singleton

 

“Do the Right Thing”

It would be a glaring omission to discuss impactful black filmmakers without discussing Spike Lee, and it would be a mistake to say anything about Spike Lee without viewing “Do the Right Thing,” his signature film. Lee uses highly stylized cinematography to point (very literally) to the many directions racism leads us. Probably, he was the first filmmaker to depict racism as such a deep and complicated issue, and not as a hurdle that can be resolved through love, work or the legal system.

Evan loved it- four and a half stars- mostly for the above reason. One aspect Evan has appreciated about both Spike Lee movies so far is the lack of any “voice of wisdom” in Lee’s cast of characters. In other words, everyone is flawed in some way. No one here is in any position to lecture (though the individual characters themselves might feel differently). The closest thing we have to such a figure is Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel Jackson), the radio announcer who opens and closes the movie. While I suspect Evan mostly just likes the name, the character serves as a sort of greek chorus, commenting on other characters as they pass by the studio window, as well as a bookend device. Love Daddy doesn’t really get enough screen time for his own prejudices to show through, unless we’re supposed to count his (understandable) preference for black musicians.

Evan also liked the Mayor. Feeling that there existed a deep, mostly unspoken backstory behind his drunken ramblings made him more interesting. What has he seen? What has he lived through? That could be its own story, perhaps something Lee could be inspired to revisit someday if he ever runs out of ideas. And of course, a third character Evan picked out is Radio Raheem. Tall and intimidating, quiet, and mostly content to communicate through Public Enemy, Raheem says little, until he addresses his Love and Hate monologue directly into the camera. Radio Raheem gets lost in the mix of interesting peripheral characters, and does not at all feel like he’s being set up for a conclusion that involves a radical shift in tone. This shift would have felt jarring and uneven in the hands of most other directors. Lee executed this conclusion in just the right way, giving the audience something both unpredictable and yet inevitable.

The conclusion also provided a good turn into discussing Lee’ cinematography style. Several surprise crane shots call attention to themselves during the film, but Lee’s use of angles, while less technically mind-blowing, is just as impressive. The final shot of Raheem’s face, only his right eye visible, is an extreme low-angle shot that allows the audience to see a police officer towering over him in the background. This is an interesting transition. Throughout the film, we have mostly seen Raheem through low-angle shots, intended to make him look taller and more intimidating. Here, Evan observed, the same angle serves only to emphasize the police officer’s authority and domination over the lives of those around him, and over the life he has just taken.

Does Mookie (Spike Lee) Do the Right Thing? It’s interesting that Lee says he is never asked this question by black audiences, only by whites. Says Evan, there was no right thing to do. Strictly speaking, there might be some truth to that. By throwing a garbage can through Sal’s window, Mookie probably directed the neighborhood’s anger away from people and towards property. He might have saved Sal’s life. He might have started a riot. He might have done both.

Asked about the two somewhat contradictory quotes from Dr. King and Malcom X that close the film, Evan felt more in touch with the quote from Malcom X. Malcom X is explicit that he does not advocate violence. He just understands resorting to it, under certain circumstances. Contrast this with King, who opposes violence altogether, no matter the situation. Not to bring Star Wars into everything again, but… In the wake of recent conversations about the differences between Jedi and Sith, rigid reasoning vs. strong emotion, the danger of absolute thinking, and the pursuit of one ideal to the exclusion of everything else, it’s not hard to reconcile this point of view coming from someone as generally committed to non-violence as Evan is. When he doesn’t have a video game controller in his hand.

“School Daze”

The 1980s have arrived, along with the first wave of African-American filmmakers to make racial tension a central theme in their work. We begin with Spike Lee. 1988’s “School Daze” is the first of three “campus movies” we’ll be watching. The film is set at Mission College, a (fictional) historically black college. (Lee himself attended Morehouse College.) The lighter skinned, hair-straightened Gamma Rays clash with the group of students led by Dap (Laurence Fishburne), who are protesting the school’s decision not to divest from apartheid-era South African businesses. I pointed out to Evan that Spike Lee was perhaps the first director to show prejudice and controversy within the black community. He quickly reminded me that “Shaft” and “Superfly” show this as well, however briefly and superficially. To be fair, he is right.

“School Daze” is also the first musical Evan and I have watched, complete with dance routines, concert performances, and recurring musical motifs. Musicals can be notoriously irritating for many viewers, so I was relieved when this was not a problem. I asked Evan why he thought Lee chose this format for his film. He did not wait until our formal discussion to give his answer. The movie begins with a montage of 19th and early 20th century photos of black americans- slaves, farmers, soldiers, athletes and others. The montage is accompanied by “Wade In the Water,” a black spiritual hymn. Evan suggested that Lee wished to emphasize the role that music has played in black culture, going back to the days of slavery, and trickling down to modern times, even among those seeking a better life for themselves through academics. That was a better answer than anything I can come up with.

Again, this series of films offers ongoing opportunities to discuss the difference between form and content. This is particularly important with regard to the film’s ending. Half-Pint (Spike Lee), desperate to become a Gamma Man, is intimidated into having sex with Julian/Dean Big Brother Almighty’s (Giancarlo Esposito’s) girlfriend Jane (Tisha Campbell-Martin). The Gamma brothers have even gone so far as to christen and decorate the designated bedroom as “The Bone Room”. This is exactly the sort of content used to get cheap laughs in less thoughtful college comedies of the same era.

What makes this a different kind of movie? Jane’s pained expression as they ascend the stairs? The director’s choice to focus on Jane and Half-Pint instead of the hooting and cheering Gamma brothers? Julian’s treatment of Jane both before and after? Or was it the musical score? I asked Evan whether the film condoned or condemned Half-Pint’s actions. Initially, Evan didn’t think the movie took a strong stand either way. We discussed all of these elements of form before Evan decided that when Dap scolds the victorious Half-Pint the following morning, he is not angry because Half-Pint slept with another man’s woman. Dap is angry because he knows that Julian put Jane up to this ritual, using her as a sex device, and that his young cousin Half-Pint allowed his desire for acceptance to cloud his judgment.

“School Daze” was the second movie in as many weeks to end by breaking the fourth wall. Dap begs the audience, as well as his fellow students and faculty, to “wake up,” the two words that open next week’s movie. Maybe these are the two words that best summarize Lee’s career.

Next week: “Do the Right Thing” (1989) Dir. Spike Lee

“Blazing Saddles”

No overview, however brief, of American movies that impactfully addressed racism would be complete without the first attempt in film to undermine racism by satirizing it. Along with “Monty Python’s Holy Grail” and “Dr. Strangelove,” “Blazing Saddles” is among the oldest comedies one can show to contemporary audiences- millennials, even- and still get a great laugh. This is testament to their tragically timeless subjects, and the value of satire in general. As long as religion, racism, and mutually assured destruction continue to threaten and weaken society, these movies will be funny.

Needless to say, Evan was amused. Four and a half stars. Mel Brooks’ style appeals strongly. The barrage of anachronisms and the ending that shatters the fourth wall were among “Blazing Saddles” finest moments, he thought. It is worth noting that the movie not only makes fun of racists, but also represents an interracial collaboration. The original writer and Brooks himself were Jewish, while Richard Pryor was co-writer, and Cleavon Little stole the show in the leading role as Bart. Becoming one of the first ten films to make more than $100 million, “Blazing Saddles” was a threat to the status quo in more ways than one. Its success was no doubt partially owed to the three blaxploitation films we watched leading up to this week, which demonstrated that movies featuring black people who outsmart white people were finally profitable.

The final question I had for Evan related to genre. Why a western? Why are westerns and racism the perfect vehicles to satirize each other? He gave this question some thought, which surprised me, since he had found the racism in “The Searchers” so deplorable. But yes, it was clear to him that because racism was so deeply ingrained in many early westerns, the dying genre was overdue for a sucker punch to the head. This also led us to discuss later westerns we had watched. “Little Big Man,” especially, turned the genre over and dropped it on its ten-gallon hat, showing us the Battle of Little Big Horn from the Indians’ point of view. While “westerns” continue to get produced today, these are mostly dramas that happen to take place in the old west. The conventions of the genre- good guys, bad guys, outlaws, outsiders- have long since moved over into modern day science fiction and comic book movies. Fitting, as such, that the true western should have died in such a blaze of glory.

Next week: “School Daze” (1988) Dir. Spike Lee